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Environmental Lawyer Turned Conservation Photographer


As a kid, Jennifer Ross played with her dad’s old Leica camera, spurring a passion for photography. But, she recalls, “academic pursuits interfered with my artistic interests.” After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1986, Ross joined a large San Francisco law firm handling environmental cases, including toxic torts and Superfund cases.

“For a young associate, I had a lot of responsibility,” she says. “But it was not fully apparent to me when I started that civil litigation almost never goes to trial.” Because she wanted more courtroom experience, Ross migrated to a Bay Area district attorney’s office. In 1995, she moved to the California Sierras and landed a part-time job at the Nevada City DA’s office. “I was hoping to also do photography part-time.”

But Ross soon discovered that being a DA part-time was challenging. For example, she once spent four months single-handedly prosecuting Pacific Gas & Electric for failing to trim trees near high-voltage power lines. Ross won a guilty verdict on hundreds of counts related to criminal negligence.

After that trial, she was “burned out and not loving being a lawyer,” she recalls. “I was still young enough to change direction 180 degrees. I was concerned about waking up at age 80 and wondering, ‘Where did the time go?’ So I quit cold turkey to become a photographer.”

Giving up her profession was easy because Ross knew she could return to law and, she says, “unlike my peers, I never became committed to a high-income lifestyle.”

Ross now works as a freelance photographer, shooting stock, selling prints, writing articles, and taking assignments from publications like National Geographic. She specializes in environmental and conservation photography. “I’ve always been most interested in the natural world and I’ve always been interested in conservation issues,” she explains. “I wanted to combine that with photography.”

Her photos have appeared in museums like the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. A devotee of Canon equipment, Ross frequently travels for work. She’s made many trips to the Arctic, for example, for a project studying polar bears and climate change.

“I don’t make a very good living and I don’t work any less hard or fewer hours than I did as a lawyer,” she says. “But I enjoy my life far more.”

Still, Ross’s legal training continues to influence her in “a variety of ways.” For example, when she gives slideshow presentations, she’s able to distill for the audience the essence of a problem from its many complicated aspects. That, she says, is precisely what a trial lawyer does. “Also, a lot of environmental issues I deal with have law-related aspects to them. My background as a lawyer enables me to understand those issues. I’m drawn to projects that are complex and multifaceted, and my training has given me the analytical skills to understand those complexities. I can separate the wheat from the chaff. I can analyze the interconnectiveness of issues.”


Leslie A. Gordon Freelance legal affairs journalist and corporate writer/editor for law firms and other professional service firms. Former staff writer at The Daily Journal, a legal affairs newspaper in San Francisco. A "recovering" lawyer, also spent five years as an adjunct professor teaching writing at UC Hastings College of the Law. Author of the novels HEADS OR TAILS and CHEER.